14 March 2011

Robert Levin: Meta-Mozart and Mozart’s Own Experimentalism/Eclecticism

Robert Levin

M   olding the ‘clay’, getting your fingers ‘wet’: discovering how Mozart thought, how he might have written things, how he went about doing what he did. This is inevitably humbling—this improvising cadenzas and whole movements that are missing from his works. But it also enables you to more accurately perform and understand the parts that are not missing; to have a better sense that there are [performance] ‘options’ from which to choose.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
I s it ‘creation’ or is it imitation? Honestly, it is both!
  • Mozart – Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 (4.0 min; 3.5 min)
  • Mozart – “Adagio variee” K3 Anh. 206a = K6 Anh. A 65 (1.5 min for each of 4)
  • Mozart – Suite “In the style of Handel”, K. 399 [Sarabande completed by R. Levin] (3.5 min; 3.5 min; 2.2 min; 4.3 min; 3.5 min)
  • Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 15 in F, K. 533/494 (26.5 min)
W   hat you hear in this Adagio, K. Anh. A65, are two parts, A and B, composed by Mozart. And for each of these, I have deconstructed them, stripped them down, and created versions, A’ and B’, removing the decorations… to show what might have been.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
I n Levin’s improvised material in last evening’s MainlyMozart program in San Diego we get a sense of genuine authenticity in terms of motivic elements, harmonic progressions, modulations, durations that each chord/key prevails until a change is introduced, and so on. Really convincing and wonderful. You don’t necessarily have to have comprehensive (or even ‘adequate’) explanations for the formal structure of Mozart’s music to produce new compositions (or, as Levin is famous for doing, completions of Mozart’s unfinished ones) that have tremendous verisimilitude.

T here is a lot of latitude for interpretation in these pieces—including Levin’s slow, dilated accounts of the first two movements of Sonata in F, K. 533. For example, Schiff, Eschenbach, Uchida, and others turn in Allegro times ranging between 7 min and 9 min, compared to Levin’s 11 min for the Allegro last night. Others’ performances of the Andante range between about 6 min and 10 min, with Levin’s account close to 9 min. And the Rondo Allegretto of this Sonata is, in others’ hands, incredibly varied, ranging from as short as 6 min to 8 min or more; Levin’s tendency toward hyper-masculine emphasis leads him to 6 min 20 seconds with a flourish.
I ’m studying—we all should be studying, like students learning a new language. People study French, German, Italian, Chinese… eventually they become fluent speakers, if they work hard at it. Well, why not think of Mozart as a language, one that must be learned, in a conversational way? I am studying Mozart! I’m just trying to improve my diction—trying to get my ‘accent’ better.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
L evin’s remarks remind me of David Cope, composer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, who 20+ years ago created Emmy, a LISP-based software application that produced scores in the style of classical composers. Some time ago Cope decided to sunset Emmy. It has been superceded by a new package, called Emily Howell, another in his suite of computer models of musical creativity.

L iterary theorist Frederic Jameson considers the ‘effacement’ of a personal style and its replacement by ‘pastiche’—not parody as in Bruce Adolphe’s comedic and educational routines but the borrowing and recoding of historical idioms, adopting jargon popularized by others, and repurposing ornaments and decorations that previously held different meanings—as fundamental elements of post-modernism. It is a “celebration of surfaces, which denies the hermeneutics of depth” (Jameson, pp. 64-5.) It’s like speech in a dead language, but speech that is devoid of parody’s ulterior, satiric motives. [Satie and Debussy co-opted and experimented with other styles and did pastiches. Nyman’s book covers some of this history of ‘experimental’ music.]

L evin marveled aloud about the brevity of the fragments that were his starting-materials… conjured the notion of Mozart as a dilettante... abandoning a Gigue in 5 bars; the Sarabande that Levin completed, abandoned by Mozart in 4 bars, just the merest sketch now extant; Mozart becoming very quickly disinterested in the art of fugue, having been goaded into attempting it by his wife.

B ut these idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of Mozart’s become in Levin’s hands a wonderful asset—they serve as a pretext for better understanding the man and the music, or, as many have noted, reviving the art of improvisation and honoring ‘freshness’ and novelty in classical music performance.

W   hat has happened in the last generation or so is that objects—musical scores—have become ‘sacred’. People focus far too much on adhering literally to the notes that are written on the page. It is far better, I believe, to have a sense of responsibility to create something new in performing each work—it needs always to be ‘dangerous’.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
R obert Levin studied piano with Louis Martin in New York City, and composition there with Stefan Wolpe. He was invited to study with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France, and in Paris while still a teenager. He studied composition with Leon Kirchner, and piano with Clifford Curzon, Robert and Jean Casadesus, and Alice Gaultier-Léon. He was appointed head of music theory at the Curtis Institute in 1968, on the recommendation of Rudolf Serkin. Levin’s highly praised Mozart fortepiano concerto series, with Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music, was released in 1994 on the L’oiseau-Lyre label. Levin has been commended especially for his improvised cadenzas, a once-popular performance practice that some have credited him with restoring to tradition. His version of Mozart’s Requiem was premiered in 1991 in Stuttgart at the European Music Festival, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Since 1993, Levin has been a professor at Harvard, where he serves as a Dwight P. Robinson Jr. Professor of Music Performance & Analysis and Professor of the Humanities.

13 March 2011

Meditating on Ken Ueno, Musical Seismology, Japan

Ken Ueno

U   eno’s concert music, writing for a variety of ensembles from chamber groups to orchestra, has been informed in significant ways by his experiences as a performer... Cultural resonances abound in his music; for example, the biwa and shakahuachi concerto Kaze-no-Oka (‘Hill of the Winds’) has an architectural basis, being inspired by buildings designed by Fumihiko Maki... [Japanese] ideograms are used as musical formants, the details of which can be extrapolated and recontexualized to create an organic, but continually changing, whole. Subjecting an acoustical object or objects to scrutiny using computer-based tools of timbral analysis, Ueno extracts details of its musical makeup, such as its prevailing frequencies and how that profile might change over time... What are the limits of perception? ... In Kaze-no-Oka, in addition to the architectural origin, the conceptual-musical idea is of the orchestral body as a reflection and amplification of the biwa (orchestral strings as ‘super-biwa’) and shakuhachi (bass sax and contrabass clarinet as ‘super-shakuhachi’).”
  —  Robert Kirzinger, liner notes, Ken Ueno - BMOP ‘Talus’ CD.
I was relieved to hear that composer Ken Ueno’s parents, grandma, and other family members in Japan are okay following the quake and tsunami.

T hinking of them and others affected by Friday’s magnitude 8.9 temblor and hundreds of aftershocks, I put Ken’s CD ‘Talus’ on to play. I look at its CD jewelcase. It still bears this orange warning label:

Ken Ueno, Talus CD warning I  think: how big is the dynamic range in decibels of the music in this recording, to which the safety warning label refers? The quietest room on Earth (the old Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis) has an ambient sound pressure level (SPL) of -9.4 dB. And the latent SPL of the top-of-the-line audio signal path (microphones, cables, connectors, pre-amps, amps, EQ, digital recording media, audio workstations/mixing consoles, audio CD media, playback amplifier and EQ, monitors/headphones, tympanic membranes and ossicles in the ears, cochlea, Organ of Corti, spiral ganglion, and acoustic nerve, cranial nerve VIII) is about 3.1 dB RMS, at 2 KHz and 20 years of age.

T he corresponding minimum perceptible ambient vibration in the Earth is about -0.7 Richter, according to Thouvenot and Bouchon (see link, below).

T he biggest recorded earthquake was the Great Chilean Earthquake of 22-MAY-1960, which had a magnitude of 9.5 Richter. So, 10 times [9.5 minus -0.7] equals a perceptible dynamic range of 102 dB for maximum earthshaking ever, and 96 dB for Friday’s Japanese earthquake.

A nd the approximate maximum of dynamic range for playing this BMOP CD of Ken’s is about 96 dB on standard digital audio at 16-bit resolution and 44.1 KHz sampling rate, given the limits of CDs and available amplifier chains and monitors/headphones.

K en’s ‘Talus’ CD jewelcase orange warning label alerts us to acoustic SPL differences in his compositions that are basically comparable to the SPL differences of what people experienced in Japan on Friday, just in different ranges of frequency spectrum. [...Heeding orange warning label, turns volume down.]

    [30-sec clip, BMOP, Ken Ueno, ‘Kaze-no-Oka’, 1.1MB MP3]

K en’s music is like koans... not a progression from pain to realization, or pain and loss as a reminder of realization. It is the lean-ness of the mind focusing on the present, consciously exerting energy in the face of difficult odds and adversity. Yamada Roshi: “When you stand up, there is only that standing-up in the whole world, with nothing sticking to it.” Ueno’s music is, like, “This! Just this!” ... something of a ‘last word,’ a rhetoric of pure experience. His compositions’ expression is without judgment, sort of a Zen-like “letting the Shodo calligraphy brush write whatever it wants,” but that does not mean that it is ‘acquiescing’ or accepting of the reality, the suffering that Nature dishes out, nor is it free from worry.

O ur thoughts go out to those in Japan and their families.

Video #1
Video #2
Video #3

D   o not say
that the deepest meaning
comes only from one’s mouth!

Day and night,
eighty thousand poems
arise one after the other—

and in fact
not one audible utterance
has ever been spoken.”
  —  Musō Soseki (夢窓 疎石, 1275 – 1351).

Tokyo, 11-MAR-2011

12 March 2011

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin: Baroque with Attitude(s), Baroque with Mixed Taste(s)

Telemann TWV52a2 flute part

J   osé Bowen writes of the ‘illusion that there is such a thing as a neutral performance style’... I believe it is an illusion principally of the listener; but even then perhaps ‘illusion’ is not the right idea... If Bowen typifies the view of a scholar making a ‘forensic’ examination after the event, rather than that of a performer who, for an ulterior artistic purposes, may need to have faith in some starting point without going too far into its credibility, he is nevertheless right to imply that performers do always display an attitude towards their music.”
  —  Jon Dunsby, in Rink, p. 227.
B uilding and shaping narrative is fundamental to effective interpretation, for musicians to bring a composition to life in performance (see esp. William Rothstein, in the book edited by John Rink, link below). In regard to constructing exciting and coherent narratives, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is second to none. Their performance last night was warmly received by Kansas Citians.
  • G.P. Telemann - Overture (Suite) in F minor, TWV55:f1
  • J.S. Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050
  • J.S. Bach - Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042
  • G. F. Handel - Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 6, No. 2, HWV 32
  • G.P. Telemann - Concerto in E minor for Recorder & Flute, TWV52:e1.
Baroque dotted eighth-sixteenth slur T he Baroque slurred dotted-eighth-sixteenth ornament: this ‘punctuation’ conveys a certain tension, but it is not ‘tense’; it is instead athletic, like the taut muscles of a horse executing patterns in a dressage ring.

C onnecting the sixteenth note back to the dotted eighth with a slur has special and different meanings in Bach and Telemann and Handel. Telemann is more ‘French’ (see the excellent recent book by Steven Zohn, Baroque flutist and Assoc. Prof. Music History, Boyer College of Music & Dance, Temple Univ, link below, pp. 13ff). In the TWV 55:f1 Overture, there is an implied or interpolated ‘rest’ or suspension in the middle of the figure. By contrast, in the Akademie’s interpretations of Bach, the dotted-eighth-sixteenth slurs feel ‘pastoral’; these feel like distance is being traversed over soft earth or a hummocky pasture. In the minor keys, it feels solemn; it carries some gravitas. How wonderful to experience the diversity of German Baroque... the saturated colors and widely varying ‘feel’ and ‘sense’ that Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin impart to these pieces!

    [30-sec clip, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Telemann - Concerto in A minor for 2 recorders, TWV 55:a2, 1.1MB MP3]

Akademie fur Alte Musik
T    he musicians had already moved through several approaches to color and texture — a dark-hued French overture; a pair of light, graceful Menuets; a supple, rubato-laden Sarabande; and a pair of full-throttle fast movements — before arriving at the Plainte, a second slow movement. Suddenly, the string sound was hushed, velvety and nearly motionless. The ensemble addressed the Adagio of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E (BWV 1042) similarly, and the effect was no less surprising the second time... But for sheer inventive oddity, Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F (Op. 6, No. 2) proved the evening’s most memorable performance. Building on the gracefully modulating chord progression at the start of the work’s Andante Larghetto, the players produced a lush sound that painted Handel as an early avatar of English pastoralism.”
  —  Allan Kozinn, review, NY Times.
T   he Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (which loosely translates to the Berlin Academy of Early Music) features about 15 players trained in techniques employed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the orchestra itself was still a relatively new idea. Friday’s concert confirmed that the uproar is warranted. The compelling program of music by German Baroque composers was one of the highlights of the concert season. What sets this ensemble apart from many others is the combination of technical expertise, extraordinary energy and sheer musicality... From the outset, the ensemble produced a soft but vibrant sound that was beautifully balanced. As it progressed through the nine-movement suite, the group demonstrated not only the ability to play well, but to infuse each movement with a sound and shape that was well conceived and effectively delivered. For example, the second movement contained two contrasting minuets. Not only was the instrumentation different — two recorders, lute and cello as opposed to strings — but differences in articulation also helped define each section...”
  —  Timothy McDonald, review, Kansas City Star.